News / Asia

Rohingya Using Larger Boats to Flee Burma, Bangladesh

FILE - Ethnic Rohingya refugees from Burma wave as they are transported by a wooden boat to a temporary shelter in Krueng Raya in Aceh Besar.
FILE - Ethnic Rohingya refugees from Burma wave as they are transported by a wooden boat to a temporary shelter in Krueng Raya in Aceh Besar.
Activists in Southeast Asia say thousands of people are fleeing Bangladesh and Burma by sea, resuming a seasonal migration that has seen many head south in recent years. Nearly all are attempting to illegally enter Malaysia via Thailand.

Monitors along the Burma-Bangladesh border estimate that 17,000 people have already left the area since August, mostly on big boats.

The information comes from the non-governmental organization, the Arakan Project.

Chris Lewa is the director of the research-based humanitarian group concerned with the plight of the stateless Rohingya, a minority Muslim ethnic group in the region.

“Just in the last week or so we have nearly 4,000 people who are on the move. We are particularly concerned that this season, I would say from now on during the dry season, there is going to be a massive movement of boat people,” he said.

U.N. officials in the region say they deem the reports “credible” but have no specific numbers of their own.

Economic migrants from Bangladesh and Burma have long risked dangerous sea voyages in search of better jobs in Malaysia and elsewhere in Asia. But sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma in the past year has led to rising numbers of ethnic Rohingya fleeing the country.
U.N. organizations have noted the shift this year to larger vessels from the small and dangerous older fishing vessels previously used by the Rohingya in the Bay of Bengal.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in a report released last Friday, noted that with the use of the bigger ships, “the price has been lowered and methods of payment have eased, facilitating the greater numbers of departures.”

Lewa tells VOA the more sophisticated exodus appears to be well organized. “This cannot exist, this kind of thing, without close collaboration with authorities in the country, whether it is Thailand or in Bangladesh. But specifically in Thailand all this movement of people, I think, cannot happen with some connivance,” he stated.

The Thai online news site Phuketwan said would-be refugees and villagers on the country’s western Andaman coast have fingered renegade Thai officers who are participating in people smuggling.

The Reuters news agency, in July, reported that interviews with people smugglers and survivors of boat voyages, revealed some Thai naval security forces were working “systematically with smugglers to profit from the surge in fleeing Rohingya.”

Lewa says her contacts along the border note that people in Burma are boarding ferry boats in daylight and without paying authorities, suggesting at least an informal “open door policy” by the country for those Muslims desiring to leave.

The passengers are transferred among ships in international waters, according to witnesses who spoke with Lewa. They are reportedly held in makeshift camps built by smugglers in southern Thailand until they can pay $2,000 per person to be moved across the border into Malaysia.

“There is a lot of concern that if they can't pay they may be sold or trafficked. It is difficult, of course, to find evidence of this but we do believe that there are people being sold to fishing trawlers or plantations, either in the south of Thailand or Malaysia,” stated Lewa.

The U.N. Refugee Agency said it has noted that since inter-communal violence last June in Rakhine state, more women and children are fleeing. Previously it was primarily men who risked their lives by taking perilous journeys on smaller boats.

Several small overcrowded boats carrying about as many as 200 Rohingya capsized and sank in rough seas in May of this year off the coast of western Burma. Fewer than one third of those on board made it ashore.

Marine police in Satun province, in far southern Thailand, confirm that 219 Rohingya swam to a beach after their vessel ran aground on a sandbank on September 11. The men were given drinking water and fuel, their boat was pushed back out to sea and they were sent on their way towards Malaysia, marine police Lt. Gen. Bungerd Manawat told VOA.

The maritime migration of the Rohingya is considered one of the biggest movements of boat people since the end of the Vietnam War in the mid-1970's.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

You May Like

Multimedia Brussels Schools, Metro Reopen Under Heavy Guard

City remains under the highest threat alert level due to what authorities have described as a 'serious and imminent' threat of attack

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

Americans Think About Strange Stuff at Thanksgiving

Millions of Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving, but they’re not necessarily thinking about turkey and stuffing

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs